Foreigners Visiting 'Birth Hotels' In California Draw Local Ire

Audie Cornish talks to Cindy Chang of the Los Angeles Times about the proliferation of so-called "birthing hotels" — homes in residential neighborhoods set up for foreign women, mostly Chinese, to come stay while they wait to give birth in the U.S. While it's not illegal to travel to the U.S. while pregnant, some of the "hotel" operators are breaking zoning and building ordinances, raising the ire of neighbors.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A hilltop mansion in Chino Hills, California, is the latest battleground in the debate over birth tourism. That's when a pregnant woman from another country, in this case China, comes to the U.S. to give birth so that her child will be a U.S. citizen entitled to a free public education down the road. Many times these women stay in what are called maternity hotels, often not hotels at all, but large homes that have been renovated to accommodate multiple mothers.

The mansion in Chino Hills, one of these alleged maternity hotels, originally had seven bedrooms, but authorities claim it had been illegally subdivided into 17 bedrooms, along with 17 bathrooms. For more on the case and on birth tourism, we're joined by Cindy Chang. She's been covering the trend for the L.A. Times. And Cindy, what have you heard from federal immigration officials about this?

CINDY CHANG: They say that there is no law against pregnant women traveling to the United States. They do say that there could be an issue with fraud, for example, if you represent that you are coming here as a tourist, but you're actually coming for a different reason. But if they're using a single-family house in a residential zone, there are going to be local code enforcement issues.

CORNISH: So is this why authorities have been going after these maternity hotels?

CHANG: Right. I mean, typically, what happens is the neighbors complain because they notice a lot of comings and goings. In the Chino Hills case, they said there were cars speeding in and out. And there's also a huge sewage spill that probably resulted from the septic tank being overloaded with too many people in that house.

CORNISH: Give us a clearer sense of how birth tourism works. Are these deliveries happening at local hospitals? Are people paying out of pocket?

CHANG: If you look at the websites for the maternity hotel companies, often they will list local hospitals and even local doctors. And I've heard there may be some cases where the companies try to take advantage of government benefits, but I think in the typical case, they pay out of pocket for the medical care, which, in turn, is a boon for local hospitals and doctors.

CORNISH: Just how much does it cost such a family to have a child in the U.S.?

CHANG: It varies, but a typical price would be about $20,000 for the whole shebang. And, you know, it depends on how early you come, so how many months you would have to stay in the hotel before you give birth. And typically, they'll stay about a month after, which allows them to get the baby's U.S. passport. And also, there's a Chinese custom where in the month after you give birth, you sort of lie low and eat special foods.

CORNISH: So, Cindy, help us understand the scale of this. How big of a phenomenon, how many births are we talking about? Is it really a trend?

CHANG: There aren't hard numbers for something like this, but if you look at the Chinese language Yellow Pages, if you start looking at these websites, there are lots of these places. And I think they've flown under the radar to some extent. But since this Chino Hills case flared up and got a lot of media attention, Los Angeles County officials have gotten, they say, at least two dozen complaints.

CORNISH: Now, activists who want the U.S. to crack down on birth tourism argue that it's not just about the child, but about parents using the child down the road as a way to expedite their own U.S. citizenship. Based on your reporting, what did you learn from parents who do this, about why they're doing it?

CHANG: They'll say that it's an option that they'd like to have down the road for their child to come to the U.S., to have an education here. I think there's also a sense of insecurity about the future in some of these countries. Even though we think of China as booming and a place where you can get rich, you know, there are issues with corruption. The educational system is extremely competitive.

And people typically won't say that they would also like to piggyback on the child to come to the U.S. themselves, but if you look at the websites, some of them just say flat out that that is an added benefit of doing this.

CORNISH: Cindy Chang is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Cindy, thank you for talking with us.

CHANG: Thank you.

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